As mentioned in my previous post, I had the honour and privilege of presenting a talk on community-engaged teaching and research in Computer Science at the 2SLGBTQIA+ in STEM Conference last weekend. There were 5 other invited speakers, as well as student talks and poster presentations spanning so many areas within STEM. It was a celebration of science and the queer communities, and I left feeling incredibly inspired.
First and foremost, I want to thank the organizers once again for the incredible job they did pulling together the conference. You created a safe joyful place where folks could gather to talk about their work and the challenges they face in the academy while providing advice to queer early career researchers and students as they pave their path through STEM.
I also want to thank the collection of speakers – not just because your talks were engaging, heartfelt, and nerdy – but because you are the leaders that STEM so desperately needs. You are active agents for change within and beyond the higher education system. I am so happy to have met you all and am humbled to have been able to share the stage with you.
The conference kicked off with a keynote presentation by Dr. Gwen Grinyer (she/her), an Associate Professor in Physics at the University of Regina. Dr. Grinyer talked about her journey as a trans woman in Physics, and the challenges that folks from the queer communities face across the STEM disciplines.
One such challenge is the general acceptance of queer academics within the academic space. To lead off this conversation, she presented results posted by the American Physical Society that outlines the number of degrees earned by women by STEM discipline between 1970 and 2020. The results are abysmally low for several STEM disciplines – specifically Computer Science, Engineering, and Physics. While Earth Sciences and Math & Stats have improved over the years, their numbers are sadly still below parity. Dr. Grinyer also shared that gender parity in Physics will take 258 more years to achieve (at current rates).
I want to say that this is unreal, but it is very much real – and unacceptable. Sadly, I imagine it is worse for Computer Science.
Dr. Grinyer then presented results documented in the 2020 PhD thesis by Dr. Tony Colella (School of Geography and Development, University of Arizona) titled “Inclusion of LGBTQ+ People in University Bioscience”. Their findings include a summary of acceptance of LGBTQ+ folks by discipline. And while the acceptance levels were not what I would call great (or even good), Gwen presented an interesting potential correlation. Specifically, she noted that the fields with high numbers of women earning degrees seemed to also be more accepting of LGBTQ+ folks. At the low end of the spectrum are Engineering (33.9% accepting), Computer Science (39.1% accepting), Physics (40.8%), Statistics (41.4%), and Mathematics (44.0%). Biology ranked best with 79.3% acceptance. Check out page 67 of the thesis for full details.
Gwen’s talk wasn’t all about the challenges though. She also talked about her research (she’s a nuclear physicist), her role as an academic and as an advocate, and the various things she is doing to address inequities in the academic system. When her talk ended, I couldn’t help but feel impressed and energized. She is a role model for her students and academics, and I hope that when I grow up I’m as cool as her.
Drs. Landon Getz (he/him) and Isabel Aznarez (she/her) spoke after lunch on Friday.
Dr. Getz, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Toronto, presented some of his work investigating bacteriophages and their interactions with bacteria. He also spent time sharing with us his journey founding the Queer Atlantic Canadian STEM (QAtCanSTEM) conference. I have to say that I am incredibly impressed by anyone who manages to complete graduate training, excel in their academic domain, AND also create a conference and community from scratch! I can’t help but think how lucky the students who get to work with him are.
Dr. Isabel Aznarez is the co-founder and Senior Vice-President, Discovery Research, at Stoke Therapeutics. Isabel shared some of the work that she is leading investigating RNA for therapeutic uses. What intrigued me here was the potential that this research has in addressing genetic diseases. From a personal point of view, it was particularly interesting to me to see how these therapies might be used to address blindness (among other things).
Saturday’s talks began with a keynote by Vanessa Raponi, P.Eng., PMP (she/her). Vanessa is the founder of EngiQueers Canada. For those not in the know, EngiQueers is a national not-for-profit that celebrates and advocates queer inclusion in the academic and engineering spaces. Her talk was full of so much joy, that I found myself struggling not to smile from ear to ear as she spoke. I also couldn’t help but feel incredibly overwhelmed and moved by the work that she and others have done. The fact that she founded EngiQueers Canada while finishing her undergraduate degree is truly awesome – and makes me wonder what the hell I was doing at that point in my life. She also talked about her role in manufacturing toys for a living. How awesome is it that she became a Professional Engineer, founded a national not-for-profit, AND gets to design toys for a living? I also want to be as cool as her when I grow up.
The last invited speaker, and the speaker to close out the conference, was McKenzie Margarethe (any pronouns), a Marine Naturalist. I can honestly say that I walked away from her talk smiling and laughing a lot. My favourite part was learning that the ocean – given the diversity of species that live within it – is the gayest place on earth.
What were my takeaways from the conference?
The biggest takeaway is that Queer scientists are doing some incredible work. It was so great to see the different types of work being done, and how all of it is rooted in making things better for everyone. Yes, we talked about the challenges of being Queer in STEM (and there are many), but what struck me most was the resilience and intentional work to make change within and beyond the academy that each of the speakers embodied. The joy that filled the auditorium was palpable and contagious. I wish all conferences felt as good as this one did.
Since I returned home, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about what I learned. I have so many ideas swirling in my head at the moment, all thanks to the people I met there.
I honestly can’t wait to see what Gwen, Landon, Isabel, Vanessa, and Mckenzie do next. And I really hope that I’ll have the chance to bask in their genius and energy again very soon.